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Ready for Atletico v Real? Here's how La Liga's three-horse title race is shaping up

All eyes will be on Madrid this afternoon but there’s still a lot of football to be played.

Spain Soccer Copa del Rey Source: Gabriel Pecot

REAL MADRID (63 pts)

How’s their gaffer done… Carlo Ancelotti’s first season at the Bernabeu has seen the focus return to matters on the pitch rather than the sideshows Los Merengues often wandered into during the Mourinho era. Defeats against Atletico Madrid and Barcelona were an early dent to their confidence but Gareth Bale has settled well under the Italian’s guidance and Madrid are a team playing in their manager’s image now.

Tell us about their recent form… Since losing to Barca in late October, Madrid have gone 15 games unbeaten in the league and turned what was a five-point deficit at Christmas into a three-point advantage over their two title rivals. They flexed their muscle with impunity in Europe in midweek, beating Schalke 6-1 in what Ancelotti hailed as a “perfect match.”

Their key figure in the run-in is… Cristiano Ronaldo is an obvious choice but Bale and Karim Benzema — who have 34 goals between them so far — are just as important when it comes to firepower. Ancelotti has taken to dubbing them ‘the BBC’ so you know they’re important.

Source: Andres Kudacki

The upcoming schedule looks like… The next three weeks will shape their season. After today’s trip across town to face Atletico, Barca come to the Bernabeu on 22/23 March.

Verdict… At this stage it’s theirs to lose — but if they take their eyes off the prize in pursuit of La Decima, their 10th Champions League crown, they will be punished.

BARCELONA (60 pts)

How’s their gaffer done… Pep Guardiola — he of three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues in three seasons — was always going to be a tough act to follow and ‘Tata’ Martino is definitely feeling the heat. The cracks showed last weekend when he called the Real Sociedad assistant manager an asshole, earning himself a one-match ban, and the Spanish media this week has been rife with speculation that he’s on the way at the end of the season.

Tell us about their recent form… Barca’s performances in recent years set a ludicrously high bar and the Catalan giants have looked disjointed and out of sorts by their expected standard. While that’s still more than enough to win them games their recent wobble, with defeats at home to Valencia and at Sociedad, has seen them surrender the impetus in the title race.

Source: Martin Rickett

Their key figure in the run-in is… Lionel Messi, obviously, but Pedro’s form this season has emphasised his importance in the Barcelona attack.

The upcoming schedule looks like… It looks like it will be make or break when they meet Madrid for El Clasico in three weeks’ time. It could conceivably come down to the final day of the season when they host Atletico, if the title race is still alive.

Verdict… Win the Clasico and they will win the league. Simple as that.

ATLETICO MADRID (60 pts)

How’s their gaffer done… Now into his third season in the Vicente Calderon, Diego Simeone is the same passionate madman he has always been. He’s fiercely proud of his achievements — a Copa del Rey, Spanish Super Cup, Europa League and European Super Cup — and deserves huge credit for managing the club’s continued evolution despite the sale of Radamel Falcao.

Tell us about their recent form… It was all going so well for Atleti who sat on top of the table at the start of February but defeats against struggling Almeria and mid-table Osasuna have put the brakes on their title charge and ramped up the importance of this afternoon’s derby.

Source: AP/Press Association Images

Their key figure in the run-in is… When it comes to goals Diego Costa has effectively carried the side this season with 21 league goals, only one less than Cristiano Ronaldo.

The upcoming schedule looks like… This afternoon’s derby in the Vicente Calderon will obviously be pivotal, as will the Camp Nou on the final weekend, but Atletico also have a tricky double-header against Athletic Bilbao and Villareal to negotiate at the end of March and start of April.

Verdict… Stared down by two heavyweights who have been here time and time again, Atletico are unlikely to have the staying power. Still, third for a second successive season is by no means a disgrace.

Brazilian-born Diego Costa set to make Spain debut against Italy

About the author:

Niall Kelly

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